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‘I want this show to fly’

A year ago I wrote, after seeing Rosalie Craig’s break-out performance in Ragtime [1] at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, that she was destined to be the West End’s next big leading lady.

And this week she is getting the opportunity to prove whether my prediction is going to come true when she plays the title role in the National Theatre’s world premiere production of The Light Princess, with music and lyrics by Tori Amos [2] and book and lyrics by Samuel Adamson, directed by Marianne Elliott.

So no pressure, then, but when we meet in a lunch break during the final week of rehearsals for the show at Southwark’s Jerwood Space, Craig thanks me for those words. “Those things change somebody – they made me feel, ‘great, I’m going to keep going’.”

And now, as she prepares to face the rest of the critical pack again when the show opens officially on October 9, she is also bracing herself for the possibility of a negative press, too. “If you think a show is your ticket, it never is. This could be dreadful, but then we’ll start with something else.” It’s a pragmatic approach, but also a necessary protective device against the possibility of disappointment. Like all actors in musicals, she’s been there, done that.

The-Light-Princess [3]Just last year, she went straight from Ragtime to star in the launch of a new musical, Finding Neverland [4], at Leicester Curve, that told the backstory of the creation of Peter Pan but failed to fly in any sense. “I remember us sitting here in this same room at Jerwood Space doing a read through, and thinking it’s a bit wrong but there are some lovely bits. But they all got chucked and rewritten and the heart of the show was ripped out of it. It was one of those non-creative experiences that sets aside what you want to do with your career, and what you don’t.

“For me, it was never a passion project, so I wasn’t damaged by it.” But, she says, her co-star Julian Ovenden, felt very differently. “I know Julian was very hurt by it all – he’d been working on it for years and years and he was certain it was going to be brilliant.”

Now, however, she is working on a passion project and the personal stakes are duly much higher for her. She has been involved since the very first workshops four years ago, playing a different character who isn’t in the show anymore. She says: “If The Light Princess is a flop, my heart will break – it just will. But in a way, if my heart gets broken, that’s okay, because at least I’ve felt this much passion for something. I know that with Finding Neverland it wasn’t what anyone wanted it to be.” That show has since been returned to the drawing board, and an entirely new creative team brought on board with Diane Paulus replacing Ashford as director, Gary Barlow drafted in to write the score and James Graham to write the book.

Not that the creation of The Light Princess hasn’t been without its own challenges. After three full workshops had been done it was fully cast and scheduled to open at the National last year, when the plug was suddenly pulled and it was postponed. “I remember not feeling safe with it, and wondering if it would happen or not. I was supposed to do it straight after I did Company [5] in Sheffield [which was staged over Christmas in 2011]. But Nick Hytner has been so brilliant. It was tough when he said it’s not ready, but it was the best thing for it, because it gave us time. There is nothing worse than racing against the clock and what for? For it to be a flash in the pan and everyone to say it was a bit embarrassing?”

Getting the phone call about the postponement was, she says, “hideous, but at the same time it was a small price to pay for where we are now. I feel it was absolutely necessary for Nick to make that call, or we wouldn’t have any of this.”

Tori Amos, interviewed in The Observer recently, quoted Hytner telling her: “The hardest form to achieve on stage is a good musical. There are more failed musicals than any type of art.” No theatre project can be foolproofed against failure of course, especially one that is pushing the envelope on what a musical can be.

But Rosie emphasises how genuinely creative this process has been for her. “I definitely feel with this I’ve been creating this character with Sam Adamson, Tori Amos and Marianne Elliott and I feel like we’re all doing it together – it’s a complete collaboration. How often does that happen to you? We just rehearsed a whole sequence upstairs, and I said, ‘this needs to happen here’, so Tori added four bars. She’s in the room with us and never leaves. It’s very hard and challenging, as any new show is, but this is also on a whole different level – we’re creating a theatrical language that I don’t even know about because we’re making it. It’s not like any other show I’ve done.”

The previous two productions she appeared in at the National were similarly unconventional.

Rosalie Craig in London Road at the Cottesloe Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton [6]
Rosalie Craig in London Road at the Cottesloe Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

London Road [7], a verbatim musical about the murder of prostitutes in Ipswich based around the testimony of local people who were directly affected, premiered in 2011. She recalls: “We sat around a piano for four and a half weeks rehearsing it – it was only in the last half of that week that we got up on our feet. We had three days to stage the whole thing. We thought it was going to be terrible. At the first preview, I saw Bertie Carvel sitting on the front row, and I thought, ‘we are going to our deaths’ – and then we got a reaction at the end that we couldn’t believe. It was one of those beautiful things where you think this is going to be so shit, but then it was fine.”

She returned to the National earlier this year to be reunited with Rufus Norris, the director of London Road, on another new project, Table, scripted by Tanya Ronder. “It was another thing that was completely collaborative. Tanya does this amazing thing, where she gets you to improvise a scene and then she writes it as you are speaking. What we say won’t be verbatim what ends up in the scene, but it will be based around what we’ve improvised.”

Having been associated more with musicals, Craig was happy to be doing a play at the National. Her partner Hadley Fraser [8], who is also best known for musicals like Les Miserables (in which he recently played Javert in the West End and was also seen in a smaller role in the film) and The Pajama Game which he led at Chichester earlier this summer, has also been doing plays, and will appear next in Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse. As a result of working with Rob Ashford on Finding Neverland, Craig, too, appeared in Ashford and Kenneth Branagh’s Manchester International Festival production of Macbeth [9]. “Hadley and I were having a chat at home recently about why we went into this in the first place, and it was never to do one thing or the other alone. Unfortunately, because the business is vast, you have to get pigeonholed, but it has been a conscious thing for us both to do plays, and we’re really lucky to have been given the opportunity.”

Now she’s excited to be playing Althea, the title character in The Light Princess, who is disowned by her father because she has the ability to float. But she notes it was really serendipity that led her to it. “I owe Sam Adamson so much – he saw me in the corner at various workshops playing another character, and said that I was who this character should be. I feel as though I’ve been doing this show forever now, but in a sense that is such a luxury because I know so much of the history of what it is and who she is now and who she definitely shouldn’t be from watching other girls playing her, when she wasn’t quite written right so it didn’t fit.”

And what about the floating? “There are various different ways I get to float – we’re still working on it now and it’s changing every day, but I’m not on a wire being flown around.” She characterises the story as a “fairytale, but one that lends itself more to adults. It’s quite dark. I’d suggest it is for people aged 16 and above. It’s about dealing with a disability at that age, and how people perceive you or may interpret it as something else.”

Now it’s time for the show to be released from its long development process and float on the stage of the Lyttelton Theatre. “I’m getting slightly sad about the rehearsals finishing now. We’ve been so spoilt, and I never want this environment to finish. But now we’ve got to show it to you guys and I hope you like it. I hope it will be special – I have to say I don’t know whether it will be, but all you can do is hope.”

The Light Princess runs at the Lyttelton Theatre, National, London [10], October 9-January 9. Previews run until October 8